THE BLOG
12/16/2013 10:31 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

World of Warcraft in Real Life

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency. This time, it was the NSA's infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life. And it was hardly a shock. More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military's collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There. As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world. In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life. General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the "four million young people" who had signed onto that virtual online environment.

While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities. A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a "target-rich communication network." They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, "an opportunity!"

In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed. The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs. And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community. Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a "deconfliction" group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.

And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I'm not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots. It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways.

In "America's Child Soldiers," Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America's youth -- via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. It's a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.

After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America's veterans once they return from this country's war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place. If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again.